by Patrick Matthews
Players: 3 - 6
Potato Pirates is a fascinating game. On the one hand, its theming is lighthearted and silly, filled with bad puns and funny potato pirate pictures. On the other hand, it calls itself a coding card game. For me, those two things (silliness and programming) don’t go together super well, and I was concerned that the game would be more work than fun. I shouldn’t have worried. Potato Pirates is, first and foremost, fun. Silly, loud, and occasionally tense, we thoroughly enjoyed playing.
Everyone starts the game with two pirate ships and twenty potatoes. The potatoes crew the ships, of course, and what you’re trying to do is kill off your opponents’ potatoes. When you start, your ships are in port. While in port, you can “program” your ships by placing cards face up on them. If you start your turn with a ship that has already been programmed, you can send it out to attack one of your opponent’s ships.
Before getting into how the programming works, let me point out the ramifications of this set up. You can’t program a ship and attack with it at the same time, so on any turn, you can see which of your opponent’s ships are programmed and ready to attack. You can also see how much damage they would do to your ships. So, what do you do? Do you alternate turns, attacking with all your ships on one turn, and programming on the other? Do you offset them, so you always have a ship ready to attack? Do you load up one ship with a massive attack, knowing that it’s going to be targeted before it gets a chance to move?
The situation makes for some tense moments, and inspires more than a little social manipulation (“If you don’t attack me on your turn, I won’t attack you on my turn.”).
Let’s get back to the programming. It’s handled very elegantly. There are two types of cards: control cards and damage cards. If you program a control card, it controls the damage cards placed on it. For example, I played a “While >4” control card with a “Mash 2 Potatoes” damage card. I attacked a ship with 9 potatoes. The “While >4” control card indicated that my damage should be done repetitively until the target ship did not have more than four potatoes. My ship destroyed 2 potatoes, reducing the target’s ship total to 7, then 2 more, reducing the total to 5, then 2 more. At that point, the target ship only had 3 potatoes, so my damage stopped being done.
If you’re familiar with programming, you recognize the While Loop that was just demonstrated. If you’re not, the concept is still easy to understand. In our group, there was no resistance to the control cards. To the contrary, they added another level of fun.
In addition to the control and damage cards, there are Surprise cards that you can use to interrupt the action. Surprise cards let you get more potatoes, steal someone else’s ship, stop an attack, and generally do things that nobody expects.
Finally, there are pirate king cards. When you get a pirate king card, you say “All hail” and everyone else is supposed to shout “the pirate king”. Whoever is last to shout it has to give you two potatoes. Did I mention that the game is silly fun? One of the ways you can win is to collect all the pirate king cards. Nobody in any our play sessions won that way, but the pirate kings add just the right touch of bizarreness, and served to lighten the tension.
Potato Pirates does a fantastic job of helping players learn basic coding concepts. If you’re interested in teaching kids about coding, this is a great choice. My suggestion, though, would be to not try to teach while you’re playing. Just play the game. The players will figure out the loops and control structures without any guidance from you. When they encounter those same concepts programming, they’ll have no troubles understanding them.
In addition to coding, Potato Pirates is a social game. Every turn, players are deciding who to attack. Should I attack the strongest player, or the player who just attacked me? Depending on the maturity level of the kids who are playing, this may cause upset. It is possible for players to gang up on each other. From an educator’s perspective, these social challenges represent a growth opportunity, a chance for you to address attitudes and difficulties in the safe space of a game.
Potato Pirates is silly, social, and surprisingly strategic. I’d recommend it to any group who wants to get together for some lighthearted fun. If you have kids that either are or will be programming, the game’s an obvious choice.
Patrick Matthews is the author of the middle grade novel Dragon Run, published by Scholastic, the MathFinder series of puzzle books, published by Mindware, and Distraction, a light-hearted card game published by ThinkFun. When he’s not writing, designing games, or speaking at schools, you can usually find him with his kids, either out on the soccer field or hopelessly lost on some wilderness adventure. Online, he’s at www.pat-matthews.com.